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Islamists triumph in Kuwait polls

Kuwait, July 6 (Reuters): Islamists and pro-government candidates swept to victory in Kuwait’s all-male parliamentary elections in a major setback for pro-Western liberals demanding reforms, results showed today.

Some 250 candidates ran in yesterday’s polls in the oil-rich, pro-US Gulf Arab state, which pitted liberals with ties to intellectuals and merchants against Islamists. While the liberals seek a more open society, the Islamists dislike Western influences and favour religious governance.

The ruling al-Sabah family, which has come under pressure to loosen its grip on power, was the big winner. Its loyalists from bedouin tribes and other groups won about half of the 50-seat assembly, while liberals were left with a handful of seats.

“This will be a weaker, quieter parliament, causing less trouble for the government,” Shafeeq al-Ghabra, a political scientist, said.

Conservative Sunni Islamists with strong tribal roots also gained ground, at the expense of more militant religious groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, which is hostile to Israel.

Radical Shia candidates loyal to Iran also lost to the more mainstream politicians among Kuwait’s Shia minority.

“The tribal Islam was a main winner. These people care more about social services in their constituencies than politics,” Ghabra said. “They will follow the government agenda.”

The election outcome may ease pressure on the al-Sabah family, which has ruled since long before Kuwait’s independence in 1961, to institute reforms and share power.

Liberals who had demanded that the top executive post of Prime Minister be put up for election now seem ready to settle for less. They have agreed to the ruling family keeping the post if it would take it away from the crown prince. “What we need is a government that can be held to the constitution. The crown prince should be kept out of political wrangling,” said Abdullah al-Naibari, a liberal who lost a re-election bid to parliament.

Under the constitution, both the Emir and the crown prince are above rebuke.

Both the Emir, Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmad al-Sabah, and Crown Prince Sheikh Saad al-Abdullah al-Sabah are in their 70s and seriously ill. Foreign minister Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah is the country’s de facto ruler.

The fate of Kuwaiti women, who have been fighting for suffrage and the right to run for parliament, also seems to be in the hands of the government now, analysts say. The outgoing, more independent parliament blocked a tentative government bid in 1999 to grant women voting rights.

About 15 per cent of Kuwait’s 850,000 citizens were eligible to vote.

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